The following is adapted from a luncheon speech delivered at Hillsdale College on September 9, 2013.
When Roosevelt ascended to the presidency, football remained controversial and Harvard’s Eliot continued his crusade for prohibition. In 1905, Roosevelt was persuaded to act. He invited Walter Camp of Yale to the White House, along with the coaches of Harvard and Princeton. These were the three most important football teams in the country. “Football is on trial,” said Roosevelt. “Because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it.” He encouraged the coaches to eliminate brutality, and they promised that they would.
Whether they meant what they said is another matter. Walter Camp didn’t see anything wrong with the way football was played. Harvard’s coach, however, was a young man named Bill Reid. He took Roosevelt more seriously, because he took the threat to football more seriously. Indeed, within weeks of meeting with Roosevelt, he came to fear that Eliot was on the verge of success in having Harvard drop the sport, which would have encouraged other schools to do the same.
At the end of the 1905 season, therefore, Reid plotted with a group of reform-minded colleges to form an organization that today we know as the NCAA and to approve a set of sweeping rules changes to reduce football’s violence. In committee meetings, Reid outmaneuvered Camp while receiving critical behind-the-scenes support from Roosevelt.
As a result, football experienced an extreme makeover: The yardage necessary for a first down increased from five to ten. Rules-makers also created a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage, limited the number of players who could line up in the backfield, made the personal foul a heavily penalized infraction, and banned the tossing of ballcarriers.
These were important revisions, and each was approved with an eye toward improving the safety of players. Yet the change that would transform the sport the most was the introduction of the forward pass. Up to this point, football was a game of running and kicking, not throwing. There were quarterbacks but not wide receivers. It took a few years to get the rule right—footballs needed to evolve away from their watermelon-like shape and become more aerodynamic, and coaches and players had to figure out how to take advantage of this new offensive tool. But on November 1, 1913, football moved irreversibly into the modern era.
Army was one of the best teams in the country, a national championship contender. It was scheduled to play a game against a little-known Catholic school from the Midwest. The headline in the New York Times that morning read: “Army Wants Big Score.” The little-known Catholic school was Notre Dame. Knute Rockne and his teammates launched football’s first true air war, throwing again and again for receptions and touchdowns. And they won, 35-14. Gushed the New York Times:
The Westerners flashed the most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year. The Army players were hopelessly confused and chagrined before Notre Dame’s great playing, and their style of oldfashioned close line-smashing play was no match for the spectacular and highly perfected attack of the Indiana collegians.
A West Point cadet named Dwight Eisenhower watched from the sidelines. He was on Army’s team but didn’t play due to injury. “Everything has gone wrong,” he wrote to his girlfriend. “The football team . . . got beaten most gloriously by Notre Dame.”
With that game, football’s long first chapter came to a close. It had reduced the problem of violence, and the game that we enjoy today was born.